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Robert Fabregat took over as the new CEO of Biocat in early October. With the desire to bring in an updated vision for the BioRegion, he believes that now is the right time to boost the ecosystem. In this interview, he reveals one of his strategic lines, while also presenting the main challenges that will have to be tackled in order to compete with other innovation hubs in Europe that are ahead of the BioRegion.

This December marks two months since you joined Biocat as CEO of the organization, after an open public call for applications. What was your first contact with the position like?

Really, it was a very positive, very exciting landing. I always tell everyone that this is a historic opportunity for the sector, given the social, political and economic moment. We have to take advantage of it to boost the life sciences and healthcare ecosystem. And I am lucky and privileged to be heading up an organization like Biocat at this time, as it is a tool that can help grow the ecosystem, generating synergies among all the stakeholders.

Given your professional experience in the sector and your time at the Catalan Ministry of Health Department of Research and Innovation, what do you think are the main challenges facing the life sciences and healthcare innovation ecosystem in Catalonia?  

The BioRegion has all the ingredients to facilitate company growth: excellent research with top-notch R&D institutes, hospitals, healthcare centers and universities; an investment network that specializes in the life sciences that is increasingly collaborating with international investors; and a rich, dynamic ecosystem. However, it is also true that we have some challenges to tackle, which mainly affect five areas. First, promoting technology transfer. We have to be able to take the knowledge and projects from research to business. The second is accelerating and developing talent. We have to work to make sure researchers can work on technology and then set up their own company with as many resources as possible available to them. The third challenge is to incorporate this technological innovation into the public health system, making the paths to market easier and faster. The fourth is being able to attract investment through financial instruments that foster company growth. And, last but not least, consolidating the whole ecosystem, so we can scale up companies and ensure a constant, quality dealflow.

To address these challenges, what lines of action does Biocat have planned for this new era? 

The main challenge I see and the line of action I’ll strengthen the most can be summed up in one simple phrase: bringing technological advances to the people. And this means putting people at the center, patients, their families, etc. To achieve this, we have to monitor the most mature technology and what the healthcare system needs to detect opportunities as quickly as possible. In this sense, another line we’re also focusing on, as are the Government of Catalonia and the Barcelona City Council, is to promote actions that encourage innovative public procurement. 

If we can close the circle and remain highly aware that improving people’s health and wellbeing is what drives us to innovate in our sector, everyone will come out ahead. In the end, we’ll generate more knowledge and wealth, while also changing the country’s production model and bringing value to the whole ecosystem.

In an increasingly global arena, and given the constant transformation and digitalization of the healthcare sector, can you tell us about three trends in the sector you believe will mark the future of the ecosystem in the post-Covid era? 

After the experience with the pandemic, there are three lines that are key: one is digitalization of the system. We have to be able to use new technology, like artificial intelligence and telemedicine, to get innovation to the people more quickly and to give them more personalized healthcare. Another is being able to innovate, transform and grow, while ensuring the sustainability of the planet and minimizing our negative impact on natural resources. The third is about public health: promoting health and preventing disease. We have to work more on wellbeing, healthy ageing and equality, striving to empower people and foster healthy environments. The Covid-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to this.

Barcelona is the third most attractive European city for startup founders and Catalonia is the most dynamic region of Spain in this sector. Nevertheless, we still have a structural lack of investment that makes it hard to keep talent and scale up innovative companies. What can we learn from other countries we compare ourselves to and that are ahead of the BioRegion? 

We look to other regions in Europe like Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Ireland, given the similarities in size and population. But how far we have to go to become competitive depends on which variable we are looking at. In research, for example, the BioRegion’s ratios are comparable or even better than many of those countries. In investment, however, there’s still a significant gap. In this line, it’s important for us to be able to implement public-private instruments to increase the funding available to startups and spinoffs at different stages, to increase the volume of investment rounds and number of operations (we need more series B and C investment and IPOs) and to improve tax incentives for investment, among other issues.

In recent years, the strategic alliances among Catalan startups, research centers and biomedical companies have increased, but technology transfer continues to be a challenge we have to address. Which tools do you think should be implemented in this line? 

Technology transfer is one of the main challenges we have to tackle and here we also require more funding mechanisms to valorize projects, establish a policy of financial incentivization and intensification, and carry out matchmaking activities that put supply in contact with demand for technology, business challenges and talent. To this end, Biocat organizes several open innovation programs that encourage relationships among all the stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem (researchers, pharma and biotech companies and investors) so they can establish public-private partnership deals.

Health is the biggest chunk of the Government of Catalonia’s budget, with €11.22 billion (26.5% of the total), up 15% from last year. What impact do you think this increased funding will have? Do you think it is enough, or will we still have to depend on the Next Generation funds for the sector’s recovery?

This 15% increase is very good news, but it would be better if these resources had an impact on the whole ecosystem. Not just healthcare, which is the main priority, but also collaterally helping reinforce our research centers, retain and attract talent, develop new technology, foster entrepreneurship and establish new companies, create new jobs, grow our industrial fabric, attract private investment... The public healthcare system is like a huge ocean liner that works to make everyone healthier, but it is also a huge driving force for social and economic transformation, and we have to remember this. If we have the synergies we need and establish the right cooperation channels, all the stakeholders in the ecosystem can benefit. 

In this regard, the public administrations have to commit to bolstering this sector as a strategy for today and, above all, for the future of the country. And it is essential that the resources from the European Next Generation funds go towards a qualitative leap forward, a transformation, to consolidate the BioRegion as a hub for emerging therapies and personalized medicine that is a global benchmark.

Biocat recently published an article on the sector’s sustainability, which highlighted that it would be the fifth largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on the planet if it were a country. Do you think the ecosystem is sufficiently aware of the carbon footprint of the health industry in general? What initiatives are being put in place by stakeholders in the system to move toward zero emissions? 

The life sciences and healthcare sector has to address the climate emergency and take responsibility for its carbon footprint. Not only dealing with the associated health issues but practicing prevention and reducing our own contribution to the problem. This is why we have to work to get all the stakeholders in the BioRegion to drive the transformation and business shift towards goals that are aligned with the 2030 Agenda. Biopharmaceutical companies like Almirall, Ferrer and Grifols have integrated sustainability into their business strategies; some startups have decided to adapt their product development to this new trend and research centers and hospitals are adapting their models to achieve a zero footprint. We can’t lose sight of this global vision. We have to be very aware of the impact on our own ecosystem and ensure its sustainability from an environmental standpoint.

2021 was Biocat’s 15th anniversary. Over this time, it has helped promote, accelerate and project the BioRegion, making it one of the main innovation hubs in Europe. How do you see the BioRegion of Catalonia five years from now? 

As an eternal optimist, I’m convinced that five years from now we’ll have done things right and have made a qualitative leap forward in healthcare innovation. I won’t hazard a guess as to whether we’ll be on par with the top innovation hubs in Europe, but I do think we’ll be comparable on some indicators. 

And now is a great time to get both citizens and all the strategic stakeholders in the ecosystem on board and committed to promoting healthcare innovation. Not only can we not afford to miss this historic opportunity, I can’t imagine any other scenario than making the most of it.

As someone who works in the sector, what do you do personally to stay healthy? 

The most important thing I’ve always done to stay healthy is exercise. Since I was little, with soccer, swimming, tennis and skiing. And I still love the snow, but I’ve swapped my tennis racket for a paddle racket, and I spend more time at the gym. And beyond keeping in shape physically, mental health is important: disconnecting, having an escape valve...

I’ve also become a fan of yoga, which helps me relax, meditate and take time for myself. And I’m increasingly aware of the impact that eating habits have on our health. I’m working to make good habits part of my day-to-day routine, but I have to admit I still have a lot of room for improvement in this area.

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Silvia LabéDirector of Marketing, Communications and Competitive Intelligence
Laura Diéguez
Laura DiéguezHead of Media Relations and Content(+34) 606 81 63
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